“That’s a real writer, with the true comic spirit.”
– James Joyce’s summation of At Swim-Two-Birds
While I respect his rightful post in the pantheon of Irish letters, James Joyce, frankly, never really captured my interest. And to this day, I cannot really say for certain why. Perhaps it’s because so overbearingly much has been made of Joyce over the last century, often at the expense of other Hibernian talents. But the sentiment more likely parallels the way I feel wandering the beer-soaked streets of old Key West: it isn’t Jimmy Buffett himself that I dislike so much as his fans, the lobster-colored “parrotheads” who seldom venture beyond the din and glitter and margarita-puke of Duval Street; in so doing, two centuries of local character eludes them.
Of Irish authors, Flann O’Brien – real name Brian O’Nolan – has long been among my favorites. English novelist Graham Greene (another favorite) praised O’Brien’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, upon its publication in 1939. And Dylan Thomas famously praised it as “just the book to give your sister, if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl!”
A metaphysical joyride, At Swim-Two-Birds concerns a lazy college student who, rather than go to class, holes up in his uncle’s house and begins work on a novel about an innkeeper named Trellis. Trellis himself is working on a novel that, shirking redundancy by recycling pre-existing literary characters that fit the bill rather than creating new ones, is populated with the likes of the mythological warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the inhabitants of a Western dime novel. To keep this feisty cast in line, Trellis keeps them locked away in his inn. But when they take exception to being written into some rather unsavory situations, they decide to rebel against their would-be author.
Joyce’s influence on the young O’Brien cannot be understated. But O’Brien followed his own postmodern path, and today, more than 70 years later, his debut novel remains not for the faint of mind.
Unfortunately, At-Swim-Two-Birds sold so poorly (about 250 copies) upon its publication that the disheartened O’Brien shelved his next novel, another metaphysical masterpiece called The Third Policeman, altogether; it would not see the light of day until a year after the author’s death. (The Third Policeman, and O’Brien, found an unprecedented surge of interest when the book was featured in an episode of the television series Lost in 2005.)
However, O’Brien’s limited success as a novelist hardly curtailed his writing habit. Indeed, the writer spent the next quarter-century writing a regular column called “Cruiskeen Lawn” for The Irish Times under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen. In this forum, the mild-mannered O’Brien’s talents flourished as he at once celebrated and skewered “The Plain People of Ireland” and all that they held dear – sometimes going so far as to respond to outraged letters to the editor that, in fact, O’Brien had penned himself pseudonymously.
When complications from cancer and decades of alcohol abuse claimed the life of Brian O’Nolan in 1966, they silenced not only a 54-year-old career civil servant, but also a vociferous melange of some of modern literature’s most ignoble, cranky, fantastical, and perversely sanctimonious characters.
* * *
The verdant sprawl of Deans Grange Cemetery lies just across the road from a car dealership in a busy South Dublin suburb in which most tourists would at best find themselves by accident. Its stones, both new and ancient, invite exploration, even in the bitter cold of a January morning.
The woman behind the counter of the little cafe at the cemetery’s main entrance confirmed that Flann O’Brien enjoys the “deeper and more refined sleep” mentioned in the pages of At Swim-Two-Birds within the grounds of Deans Grange. However, precisely where in that 70-acre necropolis he was she wasn’t sure. Then the helpful lady handed over a book from a nearby shelf – a guide to burial sites around Dublin – and welcomed me to try to suss it out myself.
Sure enough, it listed O’Brien among two or three dozen of the cemetery’s most notable decedents, which include the great Irish tenor, John McCormack, the Domingo of his day. (Fans of the Pogues might recall his name from “The Sickbed of Cuchulainn”, the opening track from the band’s 1985 album, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash.) After snapping photos of every page concerning Deans Grange with my smartphone, I returned the book and thanked the woman for her help.
The only problem was the frigid wind, as the guide presented itself as a walking tour of the cemetery (no doubt a pleasant prospect in the warmer months). Compounding this was the fact that directions to each grave began from the previous listing – not easily achieved in the freezing cold, nor from the warmth of a running car. And Flann O’Brien was twenty-third on the list.
After a good deal of fruitless poking about, it was Davida who found the needle in the haystack, using clues derived from the description of the grave that preceded O’Brien’s in the book. She reasoned that that tomb – described as being, with its stone balustrade, “one of the grandest” in the cemetery – would not only be obviously large, but most likely be situated not far from the church; both, we reckoned, would be found among the older grave sites.
Soon, we located the church and, not long thereafter, the stone balustrade (which was grand, indeed). For the first time that morning, we were getting warm, if only in the figurative sense. From there we followed the directions given in the book, and, lo and behold, just a bit farther along, we found the modest stone of one “Brian O Nuallain” (the Irish form of the anglicized O’Nolan).
Flann O’Brien. Myles na gCopaleen. Brother Barnabas. And only he knows how many others, buried there, in the humble southern shadow of the Joycean metropolis.
We lingered a few minutes and snapped a few photos before moving on to our next adventure. I took one final look at the name to which the simple stone paid homage and marveled at how, in a sense, the enigmatic Flann O’Brien had so deftly eluded even Death himself.